In the wake of the 2016 election, and with the 2018 midterms around the corner, two trends are coming together: the decline of Christian presence in America, and an increase in the attention to politics. The question of whether America is becoming more or less religious is difficult to answer. On the one hand, demographic surveys are pointing us toward a conclusion which has been decades in the making: America is becoming less identifiably Christian. This is not to say that America has become less religiously oriented, or even that it has become less “spiritual,” but that Christian numbers are declining, and they have been for decades. What to do about this has been the subject of much debate, ranging from the hand-wringing to the sober elegy, but what has been of less note is what to make of this vis-à-vis political participation. Is there a relationship between the two, and if so, how should we think about that relation?
One could argue that America’s decline in religious participation has paved the way for replacement, that in the place of God, a new idol of politics has emerged. This either/or notion—that one gives allegiance to God or to the polis—is a false dichotomy. To say that we give our attentions to one or the other gives the impression that Christians are those who do not have feet on the earth or live within societies, seeking the peace of those cities. Christians, from the beginning, have wrestled with the question of what it means that they live in particular spaces while also giving praise to God and living out their faith from within those spaces.1
We could also suggest that America’s decline in religious participation represents a kind of culmination of religious practice: what Americans once sought in the form of worship (be it a transformation of the world, social favor, or genuine discipleship) is now being sought in public life. This would account for the decline of not only the churchgoing who were in it only for social favor, but also those who now consider themselves “post-Christian,” believing in the transformation of the world but no longer seeing the necessity for church to do that. But this too seems insufficient, though for a different reason: by most measures, political participation in terms of voting, participating in intermediary political organizations, and concern for politics has largely stayed even. Traditional forms of political and engagement have declined, while a new digital form of politics has emerged.
So, to return to the question: is America looking to politics to meet its spiritual needs? Perhaps, but even this requires some nuancing in that the kind of religion being left behind does not match the kind of politics which is ascendant. If we look at this relation among the young, we find an interesting marriage: a decline in youth participation in church, and an increase in youth participation in online activism. And here, a particular picture emerges of the decline in religious activity—historically done as a face-to-face, embodied practice—alongside the ascendancy of political engagement done in a digital form. What are we to make of this?
In his oft-read classic Discipleship, the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer made this claim about the Gospel: the call of Christ does not approach as an abstract idea, or as a self-made demand, but as the very call of God in this time and place. In other words, God’s call is always a call into the world to live faithfully as God’s creature in response to what He has done. For Bonhoeffer, when Christ confronts us through the preached Scripture, it is not as an abstract principle, but as a living question, calling the hearer to obedience then and now. To hear the Word of Christ today is to answer the claim of God on us, in this place and in this time, and to hear and respond to the Good News, which is good news for both the world and the people among whom we live.
As Bonhoeffer says, hearing the call of God is not simply a call to life in the church, but a call to live as God’s people in the world. It is to offer oneself to God’s work in service to the sufferings of the world in imitation of the Christ who suffered for the world. In other words, responding to the call of Christ today cannot be separated from responding to the Christ who upholds and redeems the world. Any Gospel which ignores this, he says, is avoiding the call of God in the name of a principle which has been placed above the call of God. In his recent exploration of “selfie culture,” Craig Deitweiler encourages us to remember the image of the icon, which unlike the selfie, decenters our vision of ourselves. Writing of the icons of Jesus, Deitweiler says, “As we stare into his eyes, we realize that the focus of Jesus is upon us, the viewer. We are the vanishing point in the painting. Jesus is entering our world, eager to enter into our thoughts and concerns.”2 What is important here is that, in the icon, the idea of Jesus becomes a concrete presence, confronting us across time and space, entering our world again and again.
Where this becomes important for our reflection on politics is that in a digital age, the young are not any less interested in transforming the world but that these trends indicate they are doing so in a way which is less attached to a politics of sustained presence; statements have replaced treatises as the isolated “making a stand” has replaced sustained engagement with a concrete other. At the risk of oversimplification, the politic of the business meeting, with its dialogical approach is being replaced by the politic of the epigram, which needs only a speaker and looks for no response. The confrontation which takes place in a face-to-face encounter of an embodied speaker is displaced by speech occurring with avatars, who are not bodies to be tarried with but avatars to be dispatched.
This, to be sure, is not the total sum of the story of youthful political activity, for it would require us to forget the marches in the wake of the shootings in Parkland, or other similar engagements. But marches must be turned into something sustainable, an opening into a new kind of life together; without this, they are simply the one-sided digital engagements rendered temporarily into physical form.
If this, then, is the kind of politic which is emerging—one of digital, unidirectional action rather than boardroom conversation—this sheds light in turn on what kind of spiritual need is being met by this political action. And here, what is being met is not altogether wrong; a digital activism drives the young to learn, to speak, to test their voices, to have opinions, and to find definition for their thoughts instead of blasé pluralism. In a digital forum, they learn to seek out information and to articulate their own thoughts. What is lost, however, is learning to do this in a dialogical form, with flesh and blood persons who bleed, have histories, and will inevitably require us to listen instead of waiting to speak. Put differently, the young—in their political activity—are being prepared for a kind of religion which will inform them, motivate them, and indeed inspire them, but not necessarily one which will require them to attend to the slowness and mundanity of concrete life.
This is what Bonhoeffer (rightly) finds so important about the act of confession in church: one receives the very call of God through another human voice. We do not receive the word of God as a disembodied idea that can be assimilated to our pre-existing vision, but as a roadblock in our way—a burden to be born, a face to be learned. If American political life, as it is now becoming in digital and online forms, is a new kind of replacement for the spiritual, then the spiritual which it is replacing is one which is no real loss to the world to begin with. Good riddance to a spirituality which is rooted in expression of the self! Good riddance to a spirituality with all speech and no listening! Let me be the first to show the door to a religion which is rooted in self-authentication, as if we knew in advance of God’s confrontation what our lives are to be made of!
If spirituality is being displaced by political activity, and if political activity consists of online engagements, then the spirituality being eclipsed is one which we needed to be rid of anyway. If the trend of self-authenticating spirituality has been the gateway for a political engagement of the same, let us celebrate the demise of that spirituality. But if what is being eclipsed by the digital is the concrete, then Christians need to lament, and to not be afraid. Let us not, as with the writer of Hebrews, give up the habit of meeting together. Let us not give up speaking words of confession and pardon, of peace and of challenge. Let us not give up the completely inefficient practice of being in one another’s presence, for that is the way in which the world is changed.
The concrete meeting together which characterizes political life is not without its flaws or limitations. Any concrete meeting conceals information, obfuscates intentions, and hides the long game which its participants are after; we would be foolish to assume that the face-to-face encounter enables us to lie less than digital encounters. But the presence of concrete persons—both in politics and in the faith—is indispensable, because it is through the continued, sustained, and uncomfortable presence of others that we learn how to bear with and remain with the alien presence. God is never absent to us; though we may ignore God, it is through the concrete other that we not only receive the words of God but also are reminded of the difficult and genuinely good nature of our life together, political and otherwise.